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An analysis of Robert Nelson’s “proof” of god

By James Downard

What is it about some religious believers who are not content merely to faithfully profess their assorted beliefs, but insist on jumping the shark by arguing that those beliefs are somehow provable in a way no one but a recalcitrant blockhead could deny?

The latest on this daredevil act is Robert Nelson, a Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland in his article, Arguments why God (very probably) exists.

Nelson’s argument consists of 5 steps.

1) The Laws of Math. Why does the Universe run on mathematics? Nelson contends that “it takes the existence of some kind of a god to make the mathematical underpinnings of the universe comprehensible.”

Says who? Has Nelson got a sneak peek at the “How to Make a Universe” Manual the god had at his/her/their disposal to pull that trick off? Can any universe even exist without Energy equaling Mass times the speed of light squared? Is the speed of light some tweakable, like the knobs on the stereo set? Or is there a mystery and reason for the Universe being what mathematics does for a living that cannot be adjusted by any god, let alone being called into existence by them in the first place?

It’s not just physics (even if economics guy Nelson thought it was). Can any universe be made in which “e” (the basis of natural logarithms) to the power of pi (the circle proportion thing) times “i” (the “imaginary number” square root of negative one) can be other than negative one? Would Nelson care to call Vishnu or Marduk on the stand to thrash over that with the God of Abraham, lawyers optional?

Right off the bat, Nelson was presuming that which he needed to prove, namely that anything about the physical universe or abstract mathematics is really arbitrarily negotiable, something that is the way it is solely because a (presuppositional again) deity mandated that it be so.

I would contend that no universe can exist in which the natural numbers 1 and 1 can be added together to make 3 and no god can do otherwise. And don’t try slipping in various base systems, either, they don’t change the properties of the numbers. “1+1=10” in base two is so because “10” is how you write 2 in base two. It hasn’t suddenly become a ten, and don’t let someone who thinks it does do your taxes.

Likewise, no god can pen out a root formula (so you can work out whether the curve crosses the x axis or not, and where) for a fifth degree or larger polynomial (of the form zero equals a times x to the fifth power, plus b times x to the fourth power, plus c times x to the third power, plus d times x squared, plus e times x, plus f). No such formula can ever exist in any universe, its provably impossible in mathematics (unlike the proving thing Nelson embarked on when he thought to bring up mathematics in his god proof list.)

So on to Nelson’s 2) Human consciousness. “It is a mystery that lies beyond science,” Nelson averred. And did he reach that conclusionsbased on a thorough investigation of the science? Evidently not. “Since the 1970s, however, it has become a leading area of inquiry among philosophers,” such as Daniel Dennett, “who could not reconcile his own scientific materialism with the existence of a nonphysical world of human consciousness.”

You think, though, that the science of the subject might have advanced a smidge in the quarter of a century after Dennett’s 1991 general book offered his philosophical opinion? And that relying on that secondary source in the first place may not have been a great signpost for what had been going on in the neuroscience field since the era of fax machines and VCRs?

The fact that we can be unconscious (and indeed that we do so repeatedly every night as we pop in and out of REM dreaming) cast into doubt any non-physical justification for consciousness in the first place. Our minds do not hover in some idyll of Platonic ideoi during unconsciousness, we’re “off” because the brain has turned the “I” of us off. And unbeknownst apparently to Nelson, scientists have increasingly had data at their disposal (from MRI findings to more comprehensive understanding of animal neurobiology and awareness) to render the opinions of a Dennett (or Nelson using him as philosophical sock puppet decades after the fact) especially dated and irrelevant.

Here’s just a sliver of the work I’ve tumbled across on this subject in the course of my #TIP project on the methodology of creationism. Neuroscience happens to be a highly relevant topic that gets studiously avoided in religious apologetics (perhaps why Nelson didn’t bump into it either). Here’s a very small sampling I culled from just the main authors starting in the Bs, and in chronological order:

Ann Butler & Rodney Cotterill on “Mammalian and Avian Neuroanatomy and the Question of Consciousness in Birds” in The Biological Bulletin (October 2006).

Thorsten Bartsch et al.CA1 neurons in the human hippocampus are critical for autobiographical memory, mental time travel, and autonoetic consciousness,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (18 October 2011) .

Olaf Blanke “Multisensory brain mechanisms of bodily self-consciousness” in Nature Reviews Neuroscience (August 2012)

Pablo Barttfeld et al.Signature of consciousness in the dynamics of resting state brain activity” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (20 January 2015).

Andrew Barron & Colin Klein “What insects can tell us about the origins of consciousness” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (3 May 2016).

Buried in Nelson’s approach is the notion that he can slap his godly Post-It on any subject where scientific uncertainty exists. No, we don’t yet know every jot and tittle of how our human consciousness originated and is sustained in our little meat computers. But if Nelson gets to play his Post-It game, there are legions of creationists out there who have a big stack of Post-Its at the ready to assail way more than the list Nelson trotted out here.

The fact is that any scientific inquiry will hit some deep fundamental question marks. It’s why science is so much fun, there’s always something more to learn. But that doesn’t mean we don’t get to say certain things have gotten to be settled enough to move on.

Take lightning. No less than consciousness, science actually doesn’t know in the formal mechanistic sense how lightning forms in a thundercloud. Oh yes, they know its electrical (Ben Franklin helped settle that long ago), but exactly how positive and negative charges segregate inside of a thundercloud to make that big zot happen is not yet pinned down with absolute certainty, they just have lots of very plausible contributing mechanisms, nicely surveyed by Clive Saunders in 2008.

If Nelson can slap his Post-It down on consciousness, may we then revive the Zeus or Thor Post-Its for lightning? Or don’t those lightning-tossing deities get to play anymore?

Since I’ve brought up creationists, though, it brings us to Nelson’s 3) Evolution and faith.

While Nelson wasn’t “questioning the reality of natural biological evolution,” he did remind us of “the fierce arguments that have taken place between professional evolutionary biologists” regarding its mechanistic features, but linking to (of all people) Eugene Koonin, a brilliant and fertile scientist whose work I have been following extensively, and who on that basis is arguably the last person on earth to be invoking as a slide to challenge modern evolutionary theory (natural branching common descent, if you want a short definition, or change in allele frequencies over time, if you feel especially gene-ocentric).

But then Nelson couldn’t resist waving one of the canards of contemporary antievolutionism: Stephen Jay Gould’s punctuated equilibrium (PE) idea that Nelson contended countered “the slow and gradual evolution of species as theorized by Darwin.”

Oh the pitfalls of sloppy secondary redaction, for Gould’s PE did no such thing, in the sense Nelson appeared to mean it, that Gould was somehow suggesting some non-Darwinian rapid speciation process was in play. He wasn’t. Gould and coauthor of the PE concept, Niles Eldredge, where in fact applying Ernst Mayr’s still completely slow and natural allopatric speciation (divergence over geographical spreads) to the patchy bumps of the fossil record. And I know this not only because I read what Gould and Eldredge actually wrote on it, but more relevantly, I’ve surveyed all the many antievolutionists who have blathered on this subject over the last few decades. Nelson appears to understand no more about what PE entailed than have any of those antievolutionists.

“For my part, the most recent developments in evolutionary biology have increased the probability of a god,” Nelson declared.

If by that Nelson was imagining a god who spent several billion years figuring out how to get bacteria to do photosynthesis, then spent the next couple billion years fuddling around to work out how to make some multicellular organisms, and then spent several hundred million years working towards amniotic vertebrates, all the while littering the fossil record with forms predicted on evolutionary grounds, and paying no attention at all to clearing away virulent parasites, or minding the store to avoid catastrophic mass extinctions, or advising certain evolved vertebrate believers to not own other people or burn them at the stake for heresy, well than I guess things are swell for Nelson’s generic “god” concept.

But then Nelson seems keen to sweep the fiddly bit details of “god” under the approaching philosophical bus as he ventured on to 4) Miraculous ideas occurring at the same time.

“In the Axial Age (commonly dated from 800 to 200 B.C.), world transforming ideas such as Buddhism, Confucianism, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and the Hebrew Old Testament almost miraculously appeared at about the same time in India, China, ancient Greece and among the Jews in the Middle East, groups having little interaction with one another.”

The underlined phrases were links to the same book, religious sociologist Robert Bellah’s 2011 “Religion in Human Evolution,” but nothing in the direct summary Nelson dropped on us supported what his hyperbole contended, that any of that occurred miraculously fast, or that the peoples involved were not in contact with one another, or that human beings needed to be to exchanging Post-Its close up in order to come up with neat ideas now and then on their own (non-miraculously).

Maybe it’s a short attention span, but was Nelson really thinking six hundred years was a jolly quick time? Or that the mutually contradicting insights of Buddhism, Confucianism, Platonism and Judaism weren’t drawing on centuries, if not millennia, of prior cultural development? Did Nelson really want to dive into the history of trading networks, the Silk Road, and so on, and lay down just how many ideas did or did not get carried along in the fireside tales traded over munchies? Do we really require godly inspiration to fuel a continental telephone game, played out over continents and taking as long to resolve as it took to go from Eleanor of Aquitaine to the Moon Landing?

Ah, but Nelson was too anxious to sprint ahead, as he jumped two millennia to the scientific revolution of the 17th century (another era creationists love to put forward as a manifestation of the correctness of their religion by then pertaining), skipping past those intervening centuries positively awash with god-believers, doing that enslaving and heretic burning thing before getting around to working out the calculus of ballistic acceleration. May we regard that too as something “miraculously” indicative of the god Nelson still had waiting in the wings for the entry cue?

Well, not for long, as his concluding 5) Different forms of worship let drop the sectarian shoe.

“Everybody worships,” Nelson quoted novelist David Foster Wallace, “The only choice we get is what to worship.” But if you were thinking the Olympian Gods or the Buddhist reincarnation cycle was going to be on the agenda, think again. Nelson mentioned only Marxism, worshipers of Marxism (I won’t be disagreeing, by the way) … and Christianity.

What started out as a global miracle of mutually independent and contradictory faiths back in that Axial Age, abruptly imploded into a parochial declaration of Nelson’s local version of god as the one who gets the ball.

“That the Christian essence, as arose out of Judaism, showed such great staying power amidst the extraordinary political, economic, intellectual and other radical changes of the modern age is another reason I offer for thinking that the existence of god is very probable.”

The underlined being another link, to his own book on that topic, which I suspect may be only longer than (not better supported) than his hop-skip-and-jump Five Step Leap to God (AKA Christianity) we saw here.

But couldn’t exactly the same persistence in the face of modernity be said of the Hindu pantheon? Or Islam, who takes its monotheism rather more resolutely than the wacky Trinitarianism laminated onto Christianity in its early days by the Imperial dogmatists of Constantine’s time?

In debating the sanctimonious troll Dinesh D’Souza some years ago, atheist Christopher Hitchens deftly skewered the faulty premise underlying Dinesh’s similar attempt to pitch his god ball wrapped in anthropic physics: trying to slip God through Customs without declaring him.

Nelson doesn’t even manage the fastball here. It’s worse than that the five supports he offered to prove just his own version of god (probably) exists knocked over with the merest nudge. It’s that none of them functioned as viable supports to begin with.

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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